M.J. Kang built a network of community support around parenthood

By Regan Kibbee

M.J. Kang, daughter Mia and husband Oren Safdie after passing  their black belt tests at Chung Do Tae Kwon Do

M.J. Kang, daughter Mia and husband Oren Safdie after passing
their black belt tests at Chung Do Tae Kwon Do

Venice resident Myung-Jin “M.J.” Kang grew from a shy immigrant child to a confident and outgoing playwright and actress. When she became a mom, Kang dedicated herself to raising her daughter and creating community.

“I didn’t have any of my family nearby and I yearned for a village,” she says.

While growing up in Canada, where her family had relocated from South Korea when she was two, Kang witnessed how community helped her parents navigate being immigrants.

Getting adjusted took a little longer for Kang, however.

When she started kindergarten in Toronto, Kang only spoke Korean. She had to learn English, French and, since her school was Roman Catholic, Italian as well!

Kang was so confused and shy that she didn’t want to speak. For years, when in public she would only whisper to her two older sisters, who’d then communicate for her.

When Kang won a writing contest at age 8 for an essay titled “My Life as a Cookie,” she was terrified to read it aloud in front of her school. Her sisters promised to stand beside her and take over if necessary. She started reading and, to her delight, found the audience enjoying it and laughing at the funny parts.

Feeling that she’d found her voice, Kang began participating more. After being identified as a gifted student, she was moved to a school with other creative kids where she wrote more.

At 16, her first play won a prize. At 18, she had a play produced.

Kang began acting in high school and continued professionally, appearing on stage in New York, London, Berkeley, Toronto and other cities. She became a regular on a night-time soap opera in Canada.

In 2001 Kang moved from New York City to Malibu with her husband, playwright and screenwriter Oren Safdie. She worked in film, television and theater, including with Academy Award winners Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ellen Burstyn and Timothy Hutton.

Being part of a community of like-minded artists was extremely satisfying for Kang. She enjoyed the bonding that came with each new production.

Then Kang got pregnant.

Giving birth to her daughter was not the pain-free and ecstatic experience Kang’s mother had led her to expect. After returning home with her newborn, she found herself at a loss for communal support.

“Who do I talk to to get a sense of what it means to be a parent?” she recalls thinking. “I felt so alone.”

Kang joined online parenting forums “Venice Moms” and “Peachhead” Yahoo groups. She also created the group “Natural Parenting LA” when her daughter was a year old, to share experiences with like-minded parents and connect via weekly playdates. And when her daughter was three, Kang created another group, “Field Trips SOCAL,” for families to participate in educational outings.

As it turned out, Kang had a knack for creating community. She organized many events and outings. Her whale watching, matzoh factory and bagel factory trips were each attended by more than 200 people.

Kang began opening up her home for children’s classes — including dance, harp, toy theater-making and Spanish — and to host positive parenting workshops.

“As parents, we are striving to create a kinder future,” she says. “We are all responsible for how our kids turn out.”

Now that her daughter is in school, Kang volunteers her time leading workshops in improvisation, theater, playwriting and music, and she also lends reading and writing support in the classroom.

When their daughter was 4 years old, Kang’s husband suggested they have her study a martial art. The family ultimately decided on Chung Do Tae Kwon Do in West L.A.

Although Kang’s father had dissuaded her from studying taekwondo as a child, saying it was only for boys, Kang chose to take up the practice with her husband and daughter. According to her master, “We are the first family to have tested for their first degree black belts together,”

Kang now volunteers as the de facto community builder at the studio. She’s organized an annual campout, movie nights and events for the public.

When their master fell and broke two vertebrates in his neck, Kang became the volunteer manager at the studio, organizing the teaching schedule and being the communication link for all the families.

Kang says that in the taekwondo world, most studios fold when something happens to the master, but their studio has survived and thrived.

“For me and really for my daughter, who is an only child, it’s important for her to be aware of a greater sense of community and a need to give back.”

For info about Chung Do Tae Kwon Do, visit  taekwondochungdo.com.